”I could take a lot of heat,” Kurt Russell says of his up-close-and-personal approach to playing a firefighter in Backdraft. ”When we started one of the most intense fires, this whole building was going up and I thought, man, this is really hot. It was a bitch and a half. Snot was running out of my nose, I could barely breathe, my eyes felt like they were going to burst. I felt a rising panic. I really wanted out of there bad. I turned around saying my line and the cameraman wasn’t there, Billy (Baldwin) wasn’t there, nobody was there! The room was completely black smoke. It was sort of a great moment. I said to myself, ‘Nobody could ever accuse me of not being totally there.’ It was like my fire. I had forgotten that we were making a movie.”
After spending nearly three quarters of his 40 years as an actor, Kurt Russell may finally have found his elusive perfect role — one that lets him forget he’s acting. Though the square-jawed former child star has appeared in dozens of films and countless TV shows, he has always claimed to take acting less seriously than a number of his more primal pursuits, namely hunting, speedboats, dirt bikes, flying, and baseball. For a man who, armed with only a jackknife, once took on a wild boar, and who sees acting as a slightly wimpy occupation he isn’t sure he respects, the role of hard-driving Chicago firefighter Stephen McCaffrey was almost too good to be true. In director Ron Howard’s $39 million salute to America’s flame busters, McCaffrey is a firefighter’s firefighter — too stubborn to wear his air mask, too hard on his firefighter-in-training brother (William Baldwin), and an all-out hero when he should be. ”It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Russell says. ”I worked my ass off on this.”
Much of the role’s appeal was that playing a fireman is as close as Russell may get to work he admires. ”It’s the only job I’ve seen in a long, long time that I could see myself being excited enough and proud enough about,” he says. And unlike most action films, in which stuntmen do the daring stuff and much of the excitement is created in a special effects lab, Backdraft put the actors face-to-face with real flames. ”These actors are in there flat-out doing it,” Russell says about costars Baldwin and Scott Glenn. ”Putting out fires.”
Russell’s career has been in need of real heat for some time. Despite his varied credits — ranging from the no-nuke message movie Silkwood (1983) to the no-brain beefcake fest Tango & Cash (1989) — he has long been stuck on the special back burner Hollywood reserves for second-tier leading men. His critical successes, like 1988’s Tequila Sunrise, have often been box office disappointments. Possibly doubting his drawing power, Universal didn’t even put his face on Backdraft‘s poster. But Backdraft may change a lot of minds: It took in $15.7 million its first weekend, a record for a non-sequel opening over the Memorial Day holiday, and has remained No. 1 at the box office. Kurt Russell finally has a hit he’s proud of.
It’s just past noon on the first clear day after a week of desperately needed heavy Southern California rains. I’m sitting in the cockpit of a six-seat twin-engine Cessna and looking straight out at the snow-covered Sierra Madre mountains. My hands are on the control yoke, and they’re moistening as I instinctively pull back on the stick to gain altitude. In the pilot’s seat, Russell is clearly enjoying my discomfort, unfazed by the fact that I’ve never flown a plane before and have no idea what I’m doing.
”You’re rising at a rate of 500 feet per minute,” he says casually. ”Look at your altimeter. We’ve gone from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. You don’t want to do that, you want to keep it steady.”
”I don’t want to hit the mountains,” I point out.
”You’re above them, just lower the plane.”
”You want me to go down? I don’t want to go down. I want to go up, away from those mountains.”
Russell is actually laughing now. So I push the yoke slowly away, showing him I’ll play his game; the plane descends, and the mountains loom larger — I can see individual trees jutting from the snow.
”That’s it, now you’ve got it,” he says. ”See, you can fly.”
”Any time you want to take back the controls is fine,” I offer.
”You did good,” Russell says and takes over, dipping down and then up away from the mountains.
We are on our way to Oceano, near Pismo Beach, about 140 miles and 50 flying minutes from Santa Monica, where Russell keeps his plane. Since he would rather talk about flying than acting, an altitude of several thousand feet seemed like the perfect place for an interview. Russell learned to fly only about three years ago, but he took to it with characteristic passion and now owns two planes, this Cessna and a biplane that he and his longtime companion, Goldie Hawn, like to take up for thrills. ”In the cockpit, there’s no such thing as bullshit,” Russell says over the engine noise. ”When you talk to pilots, it’s another language. There’s no posturing. It’s exactly the opposite of the movie business, where 90 percent of it is bullshit.”
It was in this very cockpit that Russell first heard about Backdraft, a movie named for the frightening phenomenon that can occur when a fire, starved for oxygen in an enclosed space, explodes ferociously as soon as fresh air is introduced. He and Tom Cruise were winging to Catalina Island, and Cruise was suggesting a role for Russell in his upcoming raceway romance, Days of Thunder. Russell wasn’t biting, so Cruise changed the subject to another script he’d been considering — a drama about two firefighter brothers working side by side in a Chicago firehouse. When they got back, Russell called his agent and said he wanted to know more about Backdraft.
”I had been pursuing Tom Cruise,” recalls Ron Howard, ”and Tom asked who would play the role of his older brother. I thought Tom and Kurt would be good together.” Cruise finally had to decline because of other commitments, but Russell jumped at the part. ”He was born to play this character,” Howard says.
Russell turns almost gleeful discussing how well Backdraft suited his adrenaline-junkie nature. ”All of us were getting burned every day,” he says. ”Your hair would burn. You’d put this gel on to keep your skin from burning, but it also attracted these little bits of ash which stuck to your face. Billy got set on fire twice. I got set on fire three times. Scott got fried once.” And that, as far as Russell is concerned, is real job satisfaction. ”If you took a fireman’s 10-year career and asked him what were the three best fires he had been in, those are the fires in our movie,” he says proudly. ”One of the firemen who worked with us and had won commendations and awards as a firefighter said, ‘In 14 years I never got burned till I did this goddamn movie. Now I’ve been burned twice.'”
[pagebreak]”What Kurt did during those fires,” Howard says, ”scared the crap out of me. All the firefighters really admired Kurt. In the movie he epitomizes the most aggressive firefighter, and particularly in Chicago, where they pride themselves on an old-fashioned, physical, almost cowboy-like approach to the job. They were thrilled with the way Kurt took to it.”
A former minor-league baseball infielder who spent three and a half seasons with the San Diego Padres and California Angels organizations, Russell felt at home in the rough bonhomie of the firehouse. ”The world of the firefighter is less paramilitary and more like a locker-room environment,” Howard says. ”It’s a lot like baseball; you have to work as a team — if you don’t, people can die — but at the same time there really is a one-on-one sensibility. They’re fine-tuned, very aggressive people making these split-second decisions: Do I go for the save? Get the person? Cut the fire off? Ventilate? Duck? Get the hell out? Those situations can really not be taught, and they’re not about group-think. In that sense a firehouse is like a clubhouse: a lot of joking, bullshitting, foul language, bawdy, raucous humor.”
Russell’s admiration for the firefighters he met is unabashed. Compared with what strikes him as the rather phony business of saying lines in front of cameras, such people have done something with their lives. ”These guys are heroes,” he says. ”They get people out of the fire. They die doing it. When these guys live their lives they have done something, they have saved countless human lives. What I do is intangible.”
Safely on the ground in Oceano, Russell turns his attention to a plate of fish and chips and steers the conversation to another career he seems to esteem more highly than acting: baseball.
”I was very good at it,” he says of his stint in the minors. ”At least as good as I was at acting, and by many people’s estimation a lot better. Could I have played in the big leagues? Absolutely. I’d have been the Bo Jackson of acting and baseball. But then I had the rug ripped out from underneath me.” At 22, he tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder and had to give up his dream — one of the low points of his life.
Baseball, in fact, was the reason Russell got into movies in the first place. As a 10-year-old growing up in California, he heard about a movie, Safe at Home, that was to feature Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Desperate to meet his idols, Russell begged his actor dad to arrange an audition; Bing Russell was a former pro-baseball player who was up for a part in the film himself, and he pulled some strings for his son. Young Kurt wasn’t cast in Safe at Home, but within a year he had landed the title role on a short-lived ABC Western called The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters and soon after was making frequent appearances on Gunsmoke and Daniel Boone.
But the doubts set in almost immediately. ”When you are on a television show as an 11-year-old kid and your picture’s on the cover of magazines, people know who you are, they recognize you,” he says. ”That’s when I became very private, started learning how to shut down. I didn’t want to stand out. It all went out of whack that way.”
At 13, Russell met 63-year-old Walt Disney, and the two fell into the sort of improbable friendship one usually associates with, well, Disney movies. The wise old mogul took the brash youngster under his wing, taught him about the industry, and cast him in a string of kiddie movies. ”We played a lot of Ping-Pong,” Russell says of those days. ”And we talked a lot. He would ask me what I thought of things, and he knew he was getting a straight answer.” After Disney died in 1966, Russell was ushered into the old man’s office, where he was shown his own name written on a pad of paper on the desk — ”the last thing he wrote,” he says.
Though he appeared in roughly a dozen films between 1963 and 1975, Russell didn’t really make the transition to adult star until 1979, when he portrayed Elvis Presley in John Carpenter’s TV movie Elvis (and earned an Emmy nomination). The telecast beat an airing of Gone With the Wind on a rival network, and people noticed. Still, Russell had to prove himself in glorified B movies like Escape From New York and The Thing before he began winning more respectable parts. Then, in 1983, he was chosen to play Goldie Hawn’s love interest in Swing Shift, a Jonathan Demme film about life on the home front during World War II. The movie was a box office dud but a personal milestone: The two stars continued their romance offscreen. The couple, who haven’t married, now live with three children in their homes in Colorado, Malibu, and the Pacific Palisades (besides their son Wyatt, who turns 5 next month, there are Oliver, 14, and Kate, 12, from Goldie’s marriage to Bill Hudson; Boston, 11, Kurt’s son with ex-wife Season Hubley, visits often). Ask either half of this couple about the other, then get out of the way of the gusher that follows.
”I just love Kurt so much,” Hawn says. ”The guy doesn’t have an ounce of bullshit in him. And he’s just about the best father God ever created.”
”Goldie is one of the most unique women in the world,” says Russell, who admits that the initial attraction was largely physical. ”She had a really nice figure. Great heinie.”
Still, Russell says, their relationship ”isn’t a fairyland. We get angry at each other, we struggle over the kids. We are very much like most families.” And while Russell says he and Goldie are ”disinterested” in marriage (both have experienced divorce), the subject has come up, particularly in regard to their son, Wyatt. ”He doesn’t understand the concept of our not being married,” Russell says. ”If Wyatt were to have some sort of problem with it, that would be a reason for us to go down to the courthouse and say, ‘Marry us.”’
In Hollywood circles, Russell’s outspokenly conservative views and his love of hunting are the height of political incorrectness, but Hawn has learned to put up with those traits (”He is who he is,” she says). ”Goldie’s been hunting with me,” Russell notes. ”I got an elk one time because Goldie tracked it. I had read the tracks wrongly and she read them correctly. She then felt very bad and cried about it.”
When we take off to return to Santa Monica, the sun is begining to set and Russell decides to fly low along the coast, so low that the waves threaten to lap the belly of the plane. He is back talking about the firefighters. ”People always think that pilots are so calm and cool,” he says. ”Well, yes, they are, but for a very specific reason. They are not thinking about crashing. They are thinking about flying the airplane. If I was crashing the airplane I’d be scared to death. Well, when you are in a fire and the heat gets intense and the smoke is really bad, you are concentrating on breathing small amounts of oxygen, you start looking for pockets of air, you move slowly, and you keep your wits about you. It’s about learning to control yourself.
”I can understand why they want to do it. When the movie was over, we had a wrap party and many of the firemen came. We had a great time, and at the end I realized they were going back to the station. And I was going back to a life that is not as worthwhile as theirs. And they probably felt a little bit sorry for me that I had to go back to playing cowboys and Indians.”
Still, playing Stephen McCaffrey gave Russell an enthusiasm for acting that he hadn’t felt in quite some time. He even confesses he would love to do movies that ”the critics find great. I hate saying that I like pleasing them, but I do.” He also believes his acting is getting better. ”I think I’m moving up the ladder. Maybe it’s by default and by survival, and also by my own growth. I’ve grown a lot as an actor in the last five years.” For all his studied ambivalence about his career, a certain contentment keeps creeping into Russell’s voice.
As the Cessna climbs from the waves, we pass through a bank of clouds with a flutter of turbulence. I say it reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode in which a plane flies into clouds like these and comes out in another world. ”I know that one,” Russell says. ”My father was in it.” Right on cue, the plane breaks out of the clouds and the slanting rays of the sun catch the actor’s rugged face. ”Isn’t this great?” he says.
Starting with his first leading film role, in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970), Russell has had an eclectic career. Here, his curt comments on a few of his better-known films:
Escape from New York
He calls John Carpenter’s post-apocalyptic thriller ”a trendsetter. It was at a time when they were making a lot of sequels, and I didn’t want to do that. It probably cost me a lot of money, but it preserved my ability to be credible in a movie like Backdraft.”
Of Mike Nichols’ film about nuclear whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, Russell says, ”A great movie. If I were to call anybody the Brando of our generation, it would definitely be Meryl Streep.”
This Jonathan Demme-directed 1940s romance was not an enjoyable experience for Russell, though it did spark his romance with Goldie Hawn. His only comment on the film now: ”Didn’t like it.”
He plays a hotheaded police detective suspicious of his best friend, a former drug dealer. ”Just a really good, solid movie, and I got to do something I had never done before.”
Tango & Cash
Russell’s biggest box office hit was this action thriller that had the star dressing in drag at one point. ”Meat and potatoes. I really had a ball doing that male testosterone movie,” he says.